In a warmly received address to a joint session of Congress today, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani reassured lawmakers that his country wants nothing more than to be safe and self-reliant, and will not “be the lazy Uncle Joe” who won’t get a job.
“We owe a profound debt to the 2,350 servicemen and -women killed and the more than 20,000 who have been wounded in service to your country and ours… I want to thank the American taxpayer and you, their representatives, for supporting us,” Ghani said, reiterating remarks he made Monday to servicemen and women at the Pentagon.
“Veterans will always be welcome in Afghanistan. Our deepest hope is that the time will come when Americans visiting our country see the cultural heritage and natural riches… Not as soldiers, but as parents showing their children the beautiful country where they served in the war that defeated terror,” he said. “On behalf of my entire country, when that day comes, you will be our most welcome and honored guests.”
Ghani reflected on how he was in his office at the World Bank when planes leveled the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. The Columbia University graduate — along with his Christian Lebanese wife, Rula — recalled fondly eating “corned beef at Katz’s, New York’s greatest, meatiest, pickle-lined melting pot.” That was one of many lines that drew applause from the chamber; Afghan media counted 20 standing ovations.
“Close friends were working near the Trade Center. My children were born in New York, and my daughter was living in New York when the Twin Towers fell. I visited Ground Zero that very week. Seeing firsthand the tragedy and devastation drove home the realization that after 9/11, the world would never be the same. I went home knowing that America would seek justice, and I began to write the plan for our national reconstruction,” the president continued.
Ghani stressed that despite “thankfully rare, but nonetheless tragic” green-on-blue attacks, “the overwhelming majority of Afghans continue to see the partnership with the United States as foundational to our future.”
“We have made great sacrifices, we Afghans, but then, it’s our patriotic to do so. You, on the other hand, had a choice. And when it came to a fork in the road, chose to do the right thing. Thank you.”
While the Taliban banned girls from attending school, today more than 3 million are in class, Ghani said. “Their parents thank you.”
“In 2002, when the allies built their first clinics, the average life-span of the ordinary Afghan was 44 years. Today, it’s over 60. Their children thank you.”
Afghanistan, he said, “contrary to wide perception, is well-suited to democracy.”
“Like Americans, Afghans are individuals. None of us defers to anyone else. We have neither had caste nor class, so persuading each other is an art form,” Ghani said. “Our key characteristics are our openness and hospitality. We believe in equality. Even in the most traditional parts of the country, our leadership must earn rather than inherit their position. There’s a strong public conscience. People are expected to act for the common good. We love debate.”
Ghani acknowledged ISIS as “another, darker cloud that is making its way towards our country.”
“The promise of the Arab Spring gave way to the emergence of Daesh terror and collapse of states. But the changed ecology of terror could have not formed without some states tolerating, financing, providing sanctuary and using violent, nonstate actors as instruments of shortsighted policies,” he said. “…From the West, the Daesh is already sending advance guards to southern and western Afghanistan to push our vulnerabilities. To the south, Pakistan’s counterinsurgency operations in which more than 40,000 people have already died are pushing the Taliban from South Waziristan towards Afghanistan’s border regions.”
Afghanistan, he stressed, “is carrying forward everyone’s fight by containing this threat.”
“Properly supported, Afghanistan is uniquely positioned to block the spread of extremism. We have none of the historical inferiority complexes that choose resentment across Western domination. After all, we defeated most of the empires,” he said. “…Ordinary is what has escaped us, and we’d really like to be leading ordinary lives, to go to school and to come back. To shop without being blown up. To play volleyball without being attacked.”
Ghani spent a substantial portion of his speech outlining plans to advance women’s rights, and to highlight gains already made.
“No country in the modern world can be self-reliant with half of its population locked away, uneducated and unable to contribute its energy, creativity and drive to national development… educating women is not solely a matter of rights, important though they are. It is a matter of national necessity,” he said, stressing “a mental and cultural revolution must take place over treatment of women in and by our society. There is no point talking about how much we respect woman’s honor if we let rape go unpunished or allow harassment in our streets.”
The president said he is “meeting frequently women who are entertaining the idea, seriously, the idea of becoming the first woman president of Afghanistan, and we will support them.” Four women have been appointed to his cabinet for a 20 percent share — “still too low, but at least fulfillment of our promise.”
Vowing Afghanistan “will be the graveyard of al-Qaeda and their foreign terrorist associates,” Ghani said that “although we may be poor, we’re very proud.”
“Our goal of self-reliance is no pipe dream… we want your know-how, the business skills of your corporations, the innovation of your startups and the commitment of your NGOs,” he said. “But we don’t want your charity. We have no more interest in perpetuating a childish dependence than you have in being saddled with a poor family member who lacks the energy and drive to get out and find a job. We are not going to be the lazy Uncle Joe.” Lawmakers laughed; Vice President Joe Biden was sitting behind Ghani as he spoke.
“Together, our two countries will finish the job that began on that clear, terrible September morning almost 14 years ago. We have the way, and we have the commitment that will anchor our country into a community of peaceful, democratic nations.”